Not having conducted the Chicago Symphony in over three decades, Jesús López-Cobos made a welcome return appearance over the Memorial Day weekend with an appealing, geographically diverse program. A connective fiber amongst the otherwise disparate works was in the way each composer appropriated the folk traditions of their respective home country. After opening with music from his native Spain, López-Cobos turned attention to Gershwin’s Concerto in F which served as a platform for the CSO debut of the gifted Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan.

Inon Barnatan © Marco Borggreve
Inon Barnatan
© Marco Borggreve

Gershwin’s piano concerto was a major compositional leap forward from his more well-worn Rhapsody in Blue in its ingenious melding of the classical concerto with idiomatic Americana, and Barnatan proved to be nearly an ideal champion. This was no small feat given the luminaries he was following, with Gershwin himself serving as soloist in the CSO’s first performance of the concerto in 1933. Arrestingly initiated on timpani by David Herbert, the orchestral introduction set up Barnatan’s solo entrance, an extended monologue which he delivered with authority and self-assurance. The first movement was characterized by a dichotomy of big-boned, almost Rachmaninov-like melodies with those rooted in the vernacular of ragtime and the Charleston, effervescing with their requisite élan, and a contrasting slow theme was filled with yearning.

A horn solo from Daniel Gingrich opened the slow movement to set a sweetly bluesy tone, with further noteworthy solo contributions from clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and the extended passage in the muted trumpet given by Mark Ridenour, though the latter not without a few cracked notes. Barnatan responded in kind with an alluring melody played over pizzicato strings, in due course swelling to an impassioned climax. The finale, a motoric toccata, was given with a singular athleticism by the pianist. While it’s something of a regret that in spite of his endless gift for melody Gershwin opted to recycle a handful of previously heard themes, this did little to detract from the finale’s propulsive drive, a dazzling array of orchestral color and pianistic virtuosity.

Preceding the Gershwin were Turina’s set of three ebullient Danzas fantásticas. The opening “Exaltación” began in hazy, impressionistic mystery, but a dance theme became sharply defined as it passed through the winds and later was taken up by the whole orchestra. After a vigorous beginning, “Ensueño” gave way to the lilting and halcyon, with touches of snare from Cynthia Yeh and a fine English horn solo by Scott Hostetler. The real fire was reserved for the final work, namely the gregarious “Orgía”.

Right on the heels of the previous week’s traversal of Smetana’s Má vlast, the evening concluded with another byway of the Czech orchestral literature in Dvořák’s Symphony no. 6 in D major. It’s a work that has often invoked comparison to Brahms’ symphony in the same key, and there’s certainly good cause for it, apparent right from the bucolic onset in the mellow horns and strings. López-Cobos’ tempo seemed a tad rushed as one wanted this pastoral movement to breathe a bit more, yet he certainly built a sense of spaciousness in electing for the lengthy repeat of the exposition. It’s a movement that’s expertly constructed, evidencing Dvořák’s full maturation as a symphonist, and in this landscape of bubbling winds and lustrous strings, one’s attention was further heightened by the composer’s surprisingly liberal use of syncopation.

The slow movement is surely one of the composer’s loveliest, not in the least due to the horn solo, gorgeously played by Gingrich, and the movement proceeded wholly untroubled, flowing with an apparent ease. Dvořák’s origins are finally revealed in the third movement furiant, inimitably Bohemian in its rapid alterations of duple and triple meters, negotiated by the orchestra with a wonderful kinetic energy. A suitable contrast was to be had in the relaxed trio which featured some particularly charming writing for the piccolo. The finale was jubilant essentially for the duration (another analog to the Brahms symphony in question), inevitability building to its exultant, brassy coda.